The first post! How many times can you edit a piece before the whole exercise loses meaning? At some point you have to push it out the door, cross your fingers, and hope it will make it in the world on its own. So, without further ado, here is “Looming”:
Paul really didn’t want to go out. He was exhausted just thinking about it – all those fake smiles, those forced laughs. Always having to think of something witty to say. The anxiety beforehand, the self-deprecation afterward.
Paul and Jane had been mainstays of the group. They met and fell in love during the weekly get-togethers and frequent celebrations. Since getting married, Paul no longer felt the need to push the boundaries of his comfortable existence by extending himself to the outside world. Jane used to try to get him to go out all the time. He always refused, and then felt bothered when she went out alone. Now neither of them went out except on special occasions – birthdays, bachelor parties, the annual Christmas dinner. No one even called them otherwise anymore.
He watched Jane’s reflection in the mirror as she fumbled with an earring. Damn, she was gorgeous. She was perfect in every way. She was his whole world, and he wanted nothing more than to close her up in that room with him and hold her all night. Forever. She read his expression and sighed into the mirror.
“Can’t we just stay home and have a nice evening to ourselves?” He grabbed Jane from behind and pulled her to him, nuzzling her neck with his lips. She shook herself away.
“Paul, these are our friends. We never see them. Can’t you just enjoy yourself?”
Paul grunted under his breath and took a step to the left so he could take in his own reflection. His pants were a little tight and the cuffs of his jacket were frayed. He would have gone out and bought a new suit if he had tried this one on more than ten minutes before they were supposed to leave. Now he was going to be self-conscious about it all night.
Jane watched him scowl at himself and then spun away without looking back. “I’ll be waiting in the car.”
Dinner was exactly as Paul had anticipated. Everyone was laughing and joking with each other and he was completely left out. He didn’t have anything to say to these people. No one really seemed all that interested in talking to him, either. They were all a little stupid, frankly. His disdain for the whole scenario was amplified by the fact that Jane seemed to be fitting in as if she had never gone off and married herself out of the group. What did she want with these people, anyway? It would have been much more fun if they had stayed home like he had suggested. Her teeth were so white against the red of her lipstick as she laughed loudly at some great joke. He never saw her with makeup on anymore.
He ate quickly and quietly and shot pleading looks at his distracted wife all through coffee and dessert. At about 9:00 he decided that the night should really be coming to a close and stretched his leg out under the table to nudge at Jane. She was obviously deeply agitated by this, but she said her good nights and they left in a whirl of forced pleasantries and empty promises to do it again soon.
On the way out to the car Paul complained of a headache and Jane took the keys. The first two minutes of the drive were silent.
“Muriel’s gained weight, hasn’t she?” Paul ventured, “She looks ten years older. How long has it been since we last saw her? It was Marty’s birthday in July I think. Holy shit, she’s a freaking cow.”
“I’m glad we got out of there when we did. I’ve got such a headache. I can’t wait to get home and get into bed with you…”
“I’m not tired.”
“Oh, well we can stay up and watch a movie or something if you’d like.”
“No, I’d rather just read, Paul.” Something in her tone turned his stomach.
The next day Jane informed him that she thought they should separate. She told him that he had changed. He had become miserable and withdrawn, and he was bringing her down with him. It was funny how Paul remembered that scene; every word that passed Jane’s lips, every turn of her head, every gesture was preserved in his mind like a recording. For his own part, all he could recall was the despair, the utter hopelessness that had enveloped him. Every time he played the scene over in his mind the emotions washed over him anew. He recalled it often.
He went to stay with his parents after that – just until he found a place he could afford. Jane kept the house. She kept everything, in fact, except his shitty car. Whenever his mother pestered him about “taking his fair share” he insisted that since Jane had bought most of the stuff herself she was entitled to keep it. Really, he just didn’t have the strength to care.
On moving day he called ahead to let Jane know he was coming with his parents. He never saw her that day. She had taken the liberty of packing his basic possessions into three large, heavy boxes and leaving them by the front door for him. Once through the threshold, the pain of being in that house was so great that Paul was thankful for the consideration and gladly took his boxes and left without stepping out of the entryway.
For the first few weeks following the separation, the very idea of socializing with another human being made Paul’s stomach churn. He couldn’t face the inevitable questions that would come up about his failed marriage. He certainly didn’t feel strong enough to listen to anyone’s half-baked apologies. Eventually, though, his crippling loneliness overshadowed this fear and he reached out to the only other person in the world who he felt might understand him – his old friend Martin. As it turned out, Jane had once again cemented herself firmly into their old group. She had been out for all their get-togethers for weeks now. Martin was very apologetic, but he didn’t think she’d be comfortable if they invited him over that night. He promised that the two of them would hang out soon, though. He promised he’d give him a call. Paul never did hear from Martin, and thinking back he wasn’t sure if he had actually given his old friend his new number.
Three months later, Paul was living in a dingy bachelor apartment with mould-stained walls that filtered sound about as effectively as tissue paper. The screams of a tempestuous three year-old constantly wafted through his kitchen, and a muffled but particularly reprehensible music continually blared through the living space/bedroom.
When he wasn’t working at the Jumping Mackerel, Paul spent his time crouched over his computer playing online poker for imaginary currency. The days blended together. He was beginning to develop a beer gut, and he hadn’t shaved in weeks.
The phone rang. “Hello, Paul? How’s it going, man?”
Paul thought Travis was an idiot, really, but wasn’t in a position to be selective about his friends. Apparently Travis was in the same position, because no one would have wasted so much energy trying to evoke Paul’s interest otherwise.
“Are you working tomorrow?”
“8:00 ‘til 4:00.”
“Sweet, I’m working 9:00’ til 5:00.”
“Granger is going to be in tomorrow, have you talked to him since yesterday? I hear he’s pissed about you being late again. That guy’s such a dick! Are you worried?”
Paul shrugged, oblivious to the fact that the gesture was likely to be lost over the phone. He was one Queen away from a straight.
“…well, hopefully he won’t be mad. Hey, what are you doing this weekend?”
“Awesome! Hey, you want to come up to my cottage this weekend if you’ve got nothing to do? I mean, it’s my uncle’s cottage, but he’s not going to be there this weekend and he said I could use it. It’s right on the beach, there’s so much hot ass out there – trust me, you won’t regret it.”
Paul glanced down at his burgeoning beer gut and pictured Travis’ fluorescent white chest reflecting the sun’s rays like fish scales. “No thanks.”
“Shit man, that sucks. Oh, well. I’ll find someone else. See you tomorrow man!”
Paul knew very well that Travis wouldn’t find anyone else to go with. In fact, he probably wouldn’t even attempt to invite anyone else. He was the epitome of physical and social awkwardness. He had latched onto Paul from the moment they met, likely because he recognized him as the only other creature in the world more lonely than himself.
Paul hung up the phone and frowned at his computer screen.
The store was empty as usual the next morning. Paul was standing at the register and putting minimal effort into appearing busy by wiping the counter with a dry cloth. That’s when Jane walked into the store on Martin’s arm. They were laughing and whispering to each other. Paul watched, stunned, all sense of reality abandoning him completely. The whole world shrunk down to the spot on which the two of them were standing, picking up neatly folded shirts and placing them in heaps back onto the table. Martin reached over and kissed Jane on the forehead.
“Excuse me young man,” A silver-haired woman dropped a pile of lures onto the counter, “Can you check the price of these for me? The flyer says they’re on sale, but there’s no sign on the shelves… Hello? Are you listening to me?”
Something snapped inside of Paul. Every emotion that he had repressed, every memory that he had firmly pushed to the back of his mind over the past months came rushing over him, filling him with an energy that he was powerless to contain. He jumped over the cash desk, ran across the store and grabbed Jane firmly by the arm. She looked dazed and seemed to be waking from a dream for a moment, then came to her senses and gazed at him with an expression of mixed love and regret. Moving her gently to safety behind his back, Paul turned to face an infuriated Martin. Things seemed to move in slow motion as Martin drew back his hand for a punch. Paul reached over and grabbed a filleting knife from the nearby display, driving it into his aggressor’s left eye before dodging the oncoming assault. Martin fell to the floor, clutching his face, blood pouring from between his fingers…
“Paul Johnson. Earth to Mr. Johnson.” Granger bellowed.
Paul stared intently at the happy couple at the other end of the store as they continued with their pleasant morning, oblivious to his presence.
“Travis, take over for Mr. Johnson here will you? He’s obviously unfit to assist this lovely young lady at the moment.”
Nothing happening at that counter could penetrate Paul’s concentration. It did suddenly occur to him, however, that either of his marks were capable of turning and spotting him at any moment. The thought made his guts twist in a knot, and he turned and walked briskly toward the back of the store. Granger followed closely behind, his face red with rage.
Paul ducked into the men’s room and steadied himself on the sink. Granger was right on his heels. “What the hell is wrong with you, Johnson? Can’t you do anything right? You look at me when I’m speaking to you, boy. I’ve had it with you and your poor work ethic and your daydreaming. You’re nothing but a loser. You’re fired! Get out! Grab your shit and leave!”
Paul finally managed to get his breathing under control. A sense of calm washed over him. He smiled thinly, holding Granger’s gaze through his reflection in the mirror. Granger’s expression gradually shifted from anger to general discomfort. Paul’s smile widened.
“You want to know what’s wrong with me, Granger?” he asked coolly, turning on the tap and wringing his hands deliberately under the stream of cold water. Granger stood frozen in place and looked at him stupidly. Paul turned nonchalantly to the wall and, with a strength he didn’t know he possessed, yanked the electric hand dryer off its mountings and spun on his heel, smashing his boss across the left cheek. Granger fell to the ground, clutching his face. Paul straddled his chest and struck him again and again until his face was barely recognizable, his skull crushed in where he lay on the cold tile floor…
It was 8:45 AM. Thanks to the double-thick shades Paul had installed the day after moving in, it could very well have been midnight in the tiny apartment. His screensaver etched a brilliant glowing pattern into the blackness as he shut the door to the hall behind him. He walked mechanically to his computer and opened his poker site, then sat and stared at the screen dumbly. For once there was no noise permeating the walls. There was no noise at all save the humming of his computer fan. Nothing moved. It was as if he had stepped into a vacuum. Suddenly, after an undetermined length of time, he got up and grabbed a beer from the fridge, cracking it open and tossing the lid into the blackness of the apartment. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed Travis, knowing he would get the machine. “Hey Travis, it’s Paul. I’ll come out to the cottage with you this weekend after all. Pick me up tomorrow.” Then he sat back in his chair and turned his back on the computer screen. A grin crept over his face.
“I can’t believe you got fired! Granger came charging out of the bathroom all like ‘Get back to work!’ He was so pissed. It was awesome! What are you going to do now? My cousin works at the Fishing Depot. Want me to ask him if they’re hiring? Maybe I’ll try to get a job there too. Then we can work together again!”
Paul had barely heard a word Travis had said in the past hour, which was exceptional considering the amount of talking the guy had done.
“I’m so excited about this weekend, man! The house is right on the beach, you’re going to love it. Hot tits as far as the eye can see. We’ll have a big party tonight, I’ll go get some kegs this afternoon and we’ll spread the word. I have one goal this weekend, dude: Getting laid…”
Normally Paul would have told him to shut up. Normally Paul wouldn’t have gone on this trip in the first place. But nothing was going to bring him down now. For the first time since Jane had left him, Paul had a feeling that he was exactly where he was supposed to be. He felt alive, and he wasn’t going to question that feeling. No matter how persistently annoying Travis could be.
Travis rolled the van to an abrupt halt in front of the house, his attention on four giggling blondes bouncing down the beach road. Three beer kegs shifted and bounced alarmingly in the rear. “Hey ladies” he called as he swung himself out the driver door. “We’re having a party tonight. Right here. All the free beer you can drink. Whadaya say?”
Paul was taken aback by his friend’s boldness. His association with Travis made him feel partially responsible for the ongoing scene, and that unnerved him. Pangs of guilt shot through him. Travis shouldn’t have brought him into this. The girls exchanged devious looks and broke out in peals of laughter. Paul obscured himself from view on the far side of the van.
Astoundingly, Travis seemed immune to their ridicule and continued on, unphased: “Come on, girls. Bring all your friends. It’s going to be a blast. We’ll have a campfire on the beach. Music starts at 9:00. Seriously, I have three kegs!”
“The beer is free?” ventured one of the girls between giggles.
Travis got the look of a lion perched on a fresh kill and turned to bask in Paul’s appreciation. Paul, still shaken and now slightly irritated, avoided the interaction by walking to the back of the van and pulling up the rear door. “Are you gonna help?”
“Did you see those girls? HOT. I’m SO going to fuck all of them.”
Irritation quickly morphed into anger as Travis strutted around to the back of the van, his demented ego obviously inflated (in defiance of all logic) by the previous exchange.
Travis made a feeble attempt to help lift the first keg onto the dolly. “Let’s take this one right down to the beach, then we can hang out back there and haul in some more pussy!” He made an obscene gesture which was lost on Paul, and turned to saunter up the driveway ahead of him.
If looks could kill, the back of Travis’ head would have exploded into a million tiny pieces as Paul’s anger grew steadily into a white hot fury. They came to the end of the driveway and Paul looked down a set of narrow, rickety stairs leading to the beach ten meters below. Travis offered to help “pull from below” and started down the steps, once again without any apparent intention to do any actual work. Paul’s teeth ground audibly. He acquiesced and pushed the dolly awkwardly over the first step.
Travis gazed out over the beach as if it were his rightful kingdom. Paul knew it was now or never. He planted his feet and tilted the dolly forward, sending the keg lurching into Travis’ arrogant, bony shoulder blades. The impact forced the air out of him with a grunt, and he fell forward. On its first bounce, the keg knocked Travis unconscious. The two continued their intertwined descent, the metallic clinking of the keg a perfect counterpoint to the dull thuds of his lifeless body. When Travis struck the sand, his head stuck out at an odd angle. The keg took one last bounce off his mid-section and rolled to a stop a few meters away…
At 9:00, Paul and Travis were already knee-deep in booze at the campfire. Travis kept looking over his shoulder, obviously anticipating the arrival of his guests at any moment. At about 9:30, when no one had yet shown up, Paul told him to give it up – no one was coming. By 10:00, the house was packed. No one knew who Travis and Paul were or what exactly they were doing there, but Travis was on top of the world. By 11:00, the elated host was acting like a sixteen year-old having his first drink after sneaking into a frat party. His guests all avoided drawing his attention when they could, and passed him off to the next unlucky sucker when they couldn’t. A few of the more forthcoming personalities told him to fuck off outright.
Paul was quiet, and no one took any notice of him at all. He sat at the edge of the campfire light and obscured himself in the darkness as much as possible. It was early into the morning hours when he decided that he had drunk more than his limit and was ready to call it a night.
He had to kick a half-naked couple off of the guest bed before shutting the door and throwing himself down on the mattress. He stuffed his face into the pillow and clamped his eyes shut, willing the room to stop spinning. This only seemed to make matters worse, and he turned his head and tried to ground himself instead by staring into the searing light of the bedside lamp. The bedroom door opened and through the spots in his vision he saw a dark figure slither across the room and into the bed with him. He tried to get a grip on his thoughts but they kept parting like mists the moment they were formed. He felt a pair of warm, greedy lips on his and a soft body pressed into his chest. For a split second he could almost imagine that he was in his own bed with Jane, and he eased into the kiss. Then he caught a quick glimpse of reality and struggled to find his hands to push his unwanted visitor away. He was going to be sick. The room spun wildly and he tried to hold it down, tried to warn her, tried to get away… but too late. She let out a horrified, ear-piercing scream and leaped off the bed, striking him hard in the nose in the process.
“What the fuck?!… what the?!… Oh, my God you sick fuck!! You asshole!!” she ran wailing from the room. By the time Paul mustered his strength and wits enough to come to terms with what he had done the girl was long gone. He dropped his head back on the puke-soaked pillow and drifted off to sleep.
“You drive, man. I feel like shit.”
Paul was happy to take the keys. He had inexplicably woken up early that morning with the overwhelming sensation that this was going to be a very important day. He had no idea why or how he knew, but he was certain that something was about to happen that would change his life forever. It was the reason he was here. He was eager to let the day unfold as it would.
They drove to the gas station to get Travis some coffee and painkillers. Travis disappeared into the store while Paul waited impatiently in the van.
“Thanks man, I really needed this coffee. You sure you don’t want anything? There’s nothing at the house but water and cold pizza. And beer.” Travis took a delicate sip from his cup.
Paul didn’t answer. Something was nagging at him, an impulse that he couldn’t quite make out but couldn’t ignore either.
“You want to stop somewhere and get breakfast? I’m not really hungry but we can get something for you to bring back if you are. I think there’s a McDonalds on Highway 41. Or do you want something else? There’s not much in town here.”
“I think there’s a diner at the end of Hoskins, actually. I ate there once with my uncle. I’m not sure if it’s still there but…”
Paul turned his scattered thoughts over in his head for a moment. “I think I want to go fishing.”
“What, man? Are you serious? I never want to see another fishing rod in my life. What do you want to go fishing for? I don’t even have my stuff…”
Paul backed out of his parking space, his resolution rapidly growing. “I don’t have anything either. Where is the tackle store?” He hadn’t been fishing since before he got married. He used to go every year with Martin. They never caught anything, but they always looked forward to it.
Travis was looking at him like he had sprouted a nose on his forehead. “Um… I think there’s a Fishing Depot all the way back off highway 18, like thirty minutes from here man. Can’t we just go back and lie down?”
“Which way do I turn?”
“To go home?”
“No, to go to the Fishing Depot.”
Travis grunted and huddled over his coffee. “You make a right from here, back to the highway.”
The tires screeched as Paul flew out of the parking lot. He urgently needed to get to that store. Nothing else in the world made sense to him but that. His excitement blazed like a fire in the pit of his stomach.
He merged onto Highway 18 and veered over to the left lane. It was a hot, sunny Saturday afternoon and there were a lot of cars on the road. Paul deftly weaved around slower vehicles, relieved that the traffic wasn’t heavy enough to slow him down.
“Hey, maybe you should slow down.” Travis’ voice was a little shaky. Paul ignored him and kept going. Not wanting to sound too unnerved, Travis began rattling on about the events of the previous night while stealing frequent glances at the speedometer.
Paul wasn’t listening, and he wasn’t thinking. He was acting purely on instinct now. Nothing mattered except the road. This was it. He glanced over his left shoulder to pass a slow moving Jeep ahead.
There, in the passenger seat of the car next to him, was Jane.
Martin and Jane were laughing at some private joke, oblivious to his presence in the neighbouring vehicle. He was driving really fast now, but the van kept pace with Martin’s sleek red sports car. He tried to speed up, but they matched his pace again.
“Hey man, are you alright? What are you looking at?”
“It’s them. It’s them.”
“What? Who? Paul, you’re seriously freaking me out now. Come on, slow down and watch the road.”
“Shut the fuck up!” Paul screamed uncontrollably. The lane opened up ahead of him and he sped up again. Jane and Martin didn’t appear to notice the van driving erratically next to them, but somehow they still managed to keep him boxed in.
They were right there. Jane smiled mischievously at Martin and leaned over to kiss him on the cheek. Paul began to come apart and depressed the gas a little more.
“Hey Paul, do you think you could let me out? I’m going to be sick. I need to get out.” Travis’ words couldn’t pierce Paul’s concentration as he watched Jane stroke Martin’s hair. She whispered something in his ear and his smile broadened. Then she put her head down into his lap and was lost from sight.
Paul shrugged off Travis’ clawing grasp on his arm. He was no longer present in that van. He was trapped in another universe, one that contained only him, Jane and Martin. Nothing outside of it was real. If he couldn’t get away from them, he’d have to stop them. He yanked the wheel to the left.
As the front bumper of the van rammed into Martin’s shiny car, Jane’s head shot up and her eyes met his. A second later she was ripped away from him again as her vehicle spun and was hit head-on by an oncoming tractor-trailer. Paul and Travis smashed into the centre median and spun. Paul thought they were spinning and spinning and spinning, but that turned out to be in his head as he picked himself up off the bloodied steering wheel. He looked over at Travis, who was flopped over in his seat, his eyes staring vacantly out at the sunny sky. A movement in the rearview mirror caught Paul’s eye. He didn’t recognize his own eyes as they stared back at him through the red haze. He held onto the alien gaze until the world went black…